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India, China Seek To Capitalize On Nepal's Water Wealth


A very small country is getting a lot of attention from two giant neighbors. Nepal is in the Himalayas between India and China. India wants to spend billions of dollars on dams in Nepal, but this week, a Chinese company won permission to build a giant dam. It's Nepal's largest single foreign investment ever. There's also a proposed high-speed railroad from China that would skirt Mount Everest. Donatella Lorch is a journalist in Nepal's capital, Kathmandu. And she spoke to my colleague Steve Inskeep.


Welcome to the program.

DONATELLA LORCH: It's a pleasure.

INSKEEP: What does Nepal have that everybody wants?

LORCH: Nepal is an Aladdin's cave of water wealth for the entire South Asian region. It has eight out of 10 of the world's highest mountains. It has massive glaciers. It has massive rivers. But the problem is that Nepal has not been able to harness all these rivers and to create the hydropower that is necessary. In the country here, we have 18 hours of no electricity a day during the driest months.

INSKEEP: So Nepal has not been able to take care of itself, but China and India want to come in and create these hydroelectric dams. Is this to create power for themselves?

LORCH: It's to create power for themselves. It's to do investments. I mean, Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world, so they have to bring in outside investors. India is desperate for power. They need power, particularly during the summer because they are feeding their air-conditioners, and they don't have it. Basically, they just have coal. They don't have the water power that can come out of Nepal.

INSKEEP: So that's what's in this for India. China, though, is now getting in with this huge dam investment and also planning a high-speed rail line to Kathmandu. What's that about?

LORCH: First, let's touch on the hydro side of the Chinese thing. They have invested $1.6 billion, and this is to provide electricity to the rest of Nepal. Financially, what does this mean for China? More money to earn more foothold in Nepal.

INSKEEP: And now talk of this high-speed rail line. Could that really happen, high-speed rails through the Himalayas?

LORCH: I would see it coming through until the Nepali border, and then it involves itself in Nepali politics. And I think that will be a long, drawn out affair. I think the Chinese definitely want to build it. I think they see it as a way of bringing trade in. The Chinese love to call it the continuation of the Silk Road.

INSKEEP: You know, when we started talking, I was wondering if China and India were finding ways to take advantage of their smaller neighbor. But I also wonder if that small neighbor is finding ways to play China and India off each other and maintain its independence.

LORCH: I think definitely both ways. Hydropower is the way out of poverty for Nepal. There is nothing else. It has to be hydropower. And many in Nepal realize this and know that they have to somehow or other push and pull their two big giant neighbors.

INSKEEP: Is anybody worried about the potential environmental effects of so many hydropower dams in one of the most famous landscapes in the world?

LORCH: Yes. The biggest issue here is that, you know, there's no independent regulator here for the moment. There is massive fragmentation and confusion in the hydropower sector, and there's definitely inadequate environmental and social policy practices here.

INSKEEP: Donatella Lorch is a journalist in Kathmandu, Nepal. Thanks very much,

LORCH: It was such a pleasure, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.